NBA Rumors: Re-Signing James Harden Would Cement Thunder as West's Elite Team

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistOctober 26, 2012

May 29, 2012; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden (13) reacts against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half in game two of the Western Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at the AT&T Center.  Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-US PRESSWIRE
Brendan Maloney-US PRESSWIRE

You might like to think the Oklahoma City Thunder have nothing to fear but themselves, but let's be honest.

This team has plenty to fear.

Not only from the new-look Lakers or the very familiar Spurs, but also from up-and-coming threats like the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers. None of these teams are qualitatively better than OKC, but all are perfectly capable of getting the better of a seven-game series.

By that same token, the Thunder are too. More importantly, the concentration of elite young talent on this roster is unprecedented, and the only trick for general manager Sam Presti this summer was keeping it that way.

HOOPSWORLD's Steve Kyler reports that he could be close to doing just that after making some headway with the reigning Sixth Man of the Year:

Harden and the Thunder seem like they are going to reach a deal. Sources close to the situation say there is such a desire by Harden to end the speculation that he may cave on his max contract demands. What’s been said is that a heavily incentivized deal would be what gets it done, and that kind of deal could get Harden to max money if the Thunder continues to dominate in the West.

Presti already locked up Serge Ibaka for another four years in August, so doing the same with Harden would ensure three of OKC's four young stars remain with the club through 2016-17, with Durant's deal expiring a year before that.

I'm guessing he doesn't go anywhere.

With that kind of ammunition, no one doubts the Thunder will contend for the foreseeable future. The question is how dominantly they'll do so, especially with Dwight Howard picking up wherever (and whenever) Kobe Bryant leaves off.

There's an important difference between the two teams, though..

Whereas Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are attempting to make the most of careers reaching their ends, Oklahoma City is just getting started with Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and—should he stick around—Harden.

Los Angeles will add new talent to the mix when the time comes. It always does. But, will general manager Mitch Kupchak find enough of it to keep pace with OKC's core? 

Though the Spurs have more young talent than you might think, they'll obviously struggle to replace Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili as they move from their mid-30s toward retirement. The Clippers' roster looks deep for now, but the majority of that depth is in its 30s.

Only the Denver Nuggets currently have the combination of youth and talent that could give Oklahoma City some trouble down the road (or perhaps even this season). The Nuggets don't have the star power, but they're certainly among the league's very deepest teams.

More importantly, they can score. Denver can play at the Thunder's tempo, really meaning anything can happen on any given night.

However, not even the Nuggets have a guy who could legitimately be considered a third go-to scorer. Outside of point guard Ty Lawson, there may not even be a second player on the roster capable of rising to the occasion like Harden.

He's what separates this club from other elite teams, doing his best Ginobili impersonation as a second-unit sparkplug capable of transforming into a closer on a nightly basis.

Players like Harden are especially key in the postseason, when the predictability of feeding the ball to a first option makes life far to easy for defenders making adjustments from one game to the next. Having credible second and third options makes it a lot harder for the other team to focus its attention on Durant alone.

It's no coincidence that Harden was nothing short of heroic in the 2011-12 conference finals while barely showing up to the NBA Finals themselves.

Of course, the scary thing about Harden is that his best years are to come. The 23-year-old is still improving as a shooter, still developing a mid-range game and still adding skills to an already tricky arsenal.

In a world where Westbrook fancied himself more a distributor, there's no reason Harden couldn't become the club's second-leading scorer. 

It would require major re-apportionments of elite talent for other teams in the West to catch up. They will do their best to make splashy moves, and they'll probably succeed to a degree.

If Harden's still in OKC, though, it might not be enough.